By Dennis D. Rooney
A Ukrainian native now residing in Montréal, Québec, Serhiy Salov’s shoulder-length hair and all-black dress bore more than a casual resemblance to Franz Liszt. But that virtuoso pianist composer’s music was not on the program of Mozart and Debussy that Salov played at the Mainly Mozart Festival XXIV on June 11 at the Alhambra Ballroom in Coral Gables’s Biltmore Hotel.
The ballroom is a handsome space in Spanish Renaissance style that recalls the heyday of Coral Gables. The Steinway D grand in place was in general well-suited to the room’s acoustics but was voiced rather aggressively in its upper register, with the result that what should have sparkled tended to buzz harshly.
Salov began with Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 333. After his move to Vienna in 1781, one of Mozart’s prime sources of income was teaching the piano to mainly aristocratic pupils. Most of his piano sonatas were composed for that purpose. Although there are many movements that mirror Mozart’s vocal style, for the most part the manner is galant and they lack both the innovation of Haydn’s works in that form, or the genre-busting ones by Beethoven.
In the first movement of K. 333, the development and recapitulation is more interesting than the exposition, but the most interesting music is in the Andante cantabile second movement, where a dramatic interlude in F minor changes the entire mood. Salov gave full value to those elements as well as the amiable finale.
He then embarked on his own transcription for solo piano of Debussy’s three Nocturnes, originally an orchestral work from 1899. Ravel arranged it for two pianos and Emil Gilels played an earlier solo transcription of the second one, Fêtes, by the English pianist Leonard Borwick. The chordal, entirely homophonic texture of the first one, Nuages (Clouds), made an easy transition to the keyboard. The bustle and riotous color of Fêtes (Festivals) contains more than can easily be encompassed by two hands, despite Salov’s enterprising attempt. Sirènes (Sirens), has always been considered the weakest of these three, testified to by its frequent omission in concert, particularly because of the need to engage a chorus of women’s voices to sing wordlessly. Salov did fine by the textures but could not disguise the music’s essential aimlessness.
After intermission, Salov performed Mozart’s Sonata in D, K. 576, composed in July 1789 as part of a set of six for Princess Friederike Luise of Prussia. At the same time, Mozart was working on a set of six string quartets for her father, King Frederick William I, which have become known as the “Prussian” Quartets. By 1789, Mozart had encountered works of Bach and Handel, and studied counterpoint, which is easily discernible in the contrapuntal textures of K. 576. It is a challenge for amateurs but advanced players can fully explore its virtuoso elements.
Salov was most attentive to the tension of the Allegro’s development. In the succeeding Adagio, he nourished the music’s harmonic exploration and frequent chromaticism despite being a little deficient in pulse. I found the Allegretto finale episodic and marred by some gratuitous explosive accents.
Salov’s most eloquent performance was of Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) from the first book of Préludes. The title made it an odd choice for a warm Florida afternoon but he captured the wintry mood, with its spare but intense expression, expertly.
The published portion of the program ended with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397. Dating from 1782, the final 10 measures are not by Mozart and usually attributed to August Eberhard Müller, who, at the request of Mozart’s widow, Constanze, completed it to permit its publication. The D minor key, the same as that of Don Giovanni and the Requiem, is a dramatic one for Mozart, which has ensured its popularity with pianists, as well as its easily managed technical requirements. Salov dispatched it smartly.
Before intermission, the audience was invited to submit subjects for improvisation, which were put in a box from which Salov pulled one by a student. He then proceeded to offer successive improvisations in the manner of Debussy, Chopin (a mazurka), Rachmaninov, Bach and Handel. The final one reminded us that Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer was Mozart, as Salov created a Mozartean improvisation as the Russian composer might have done.